Trigger happy: Part 1
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
The two things shooters are concerned about the most are the barrels and the triggers on their guns. This will be a report on triggers.
People praise the Rekord trigger found in Weihrauch rifles — and in those Beeman R-series rifles that also have a Rekord — without knowing what makes it a good trigger. So, let’s take a look at airgun triggers to try to at least appreciate the basics. This report probably won’t change any minds. If you’re a single-stage man, you’ll still be one after reading the entire series; but at least you’ll know for sure what differentiates a single-stage trigger from one with two stages.
Let’s get the fundamentals out of the way up front. A single-stage trigger is one that has no movement — often called “Take-up” — when cocked. The shooter squeezes the trigger until the sear releases and the gun fires. Many shooters like this kind of trigger because it feels right to them. After all, when a gun is cocked, squeezing the trigger should make it fire, right?
Foreign gun makers often mistranslate technical terms in their manuals and refer to “creep” when they mean take-up. Take-up is when the trigger blade moves without releasing the sear. I will discuss take-up in depth when I present the two-stage trigger, but for now I’m moving on.
On some guns, there’s a lot of real creep in the single stage of the trigger, and that leads to some confusion. Creep is not the same as take-up. Creep is the jerky start-stop movement you feel when the trigger is sliding across the surface of the sear. Sometimes, the creep is very smooth, but you can still feel the trigger blade moving. Other times, the creep is a very gritty feel, with numerous starts and stops. But the point is that with a single-stage trigger, the moment you begin pulling back on the trigger blade you’re in the act of releasing the sear.
Non-shooters believe that a trigger is squeezed or pulled until it releases suddenly, because that’s what it looks like on film. Since they don’t shoot, they never experience the actual movement of a trigger. But every shooter knows that a trigger has some movement when it’s pulled. The better the trigger, the less the movement can be felt — right up to the point that no movement at all can be felt and the trigger breaks (releases the sear) so suddenly that we say it feels as if a glass rod has broken. That analogy means that it feels the same as applying pressure to a glass rod until it breaks. It does so suddenly and without any warning, and that’s how we want a good trigger to act. Then, we know to prepare ourselves in all other ways and make sure we’re on target when it happens.
To recap, a single-stage trigger is one that is ready to fire from the moment you first start pulling it. How long it takes before that happens and how much pressure must be applied to make it happen are what define the characteristics of the trigger — good or bad.
A two-stage trigger has two distinct stages to its pull. The first stage is called the take-up, and is nothing more than a pull against the resistance of the trigger return spring. If you relax your trigger finger during this stage, the trigger blade should return to the starting position, and the gun remains cocked. Sometimes, the tension on the return spring can be relaxed too far, however; and once taken up, the trigger blade will not return to the starting point. It simply hangs loose and floppy on its pivot pin. That’s not how the trigger is supposed to function, though, but is the result of improper adjustment.
Stage two is the point at which the trigger begins to act upon the sear in a serious way. I say “in a serious way” because in some two-stage triggers there is some sear movement during the first stage pull. But no amount of adjustment should allow the trigger to release the sear during the first stage of a two-stage trigger.
So, stage two of a two-stage trigger is very much like stage one of a single-stage trigger, in that all the same things happen. Everything I said for the single-stage trigger about creep and the “glass-rod” release applies equally to stage two of a two-stage trigger. And this is where people make their decision to like one trigger or the other.
Those who prefer the single-stage trigger wonder why there needs to be anything in the trigger-pull before it gets serious. As long as a single-stage trigger feels exactly the same as stage two of a two-stage trigger, they argue, why bother with the first stage?
Marksmen who learned to shoot on a gun with a two-stage trigger would answer by saying that the first stage gives them a safety margin. They always know exactly where the serious part of the trigger-pull is. It’s at the end of the take-up. Once again, non-shooters cannot even imagine what we’re talking about because they lack the tactile experience of having used triggers. But target shooters know that a two-stage trigger allows them to ease into the trigger-pull with complete safety, knowing where things are not serious and where they are. Let me give you an example.
My SAM-10 target pistol has a two-stage trigger. Stage two must be set to release at greater than 500 grams, which is about 18 oz. Those are the rules in both national and international competition. Although it’s possible to set the second stage to break at less weight, it’s a waste of time to do so. The first-stage pull is around 20 grams, which is very light in comparison to stage two, which I have set to release at 515 grams. I set it that way so I never fail a trigger test before a competition, because there’s nothing worse than adjusting (and getting used to) a trigger just when the competition begins.
I can easily squeeze stage one all the way until it stops and know with certainty that the gun will not fire. So, I begin my trigger squeeze when the pistol is still coming down on the target. And most 10-meter pistol shooters do something similar. It’s part of a rhythm we get into and never once in I-don’t-know-how-many tens of thousands of shots has the gun ever fired at the wrong time.
Don’t try this at home!
Having told you that, I must now caution you that most shooters cannot control a trigger this well. I see shooters pick up 10-meter guns all the time and fire them before they are ready. If one of them were to try what I do they would put holes in the ceilings and walls! And before Edith makes me admit it, I’ve shot the walls, the ceiling and even the couch. But I didn’t do it while shooting a 10-meter target pistol.
When 10-meter shooters get together to compare triggers, we “see” things and talk about things that remain invisible to other shooters. For instance, many people think the IZH 46M has a marvelous trigger; but to a 10-meter pistol shooter, that trigger is a beginner-level trigger at best. It has loads of creep and variability that you can sense when you’ve trained your trigger finger to use only the best. But for the average shooter, the 46M trigger borders on being too light.
How adjustments affect triggers
Sometimes, shooters will try to adjust the first stage out of a two-stage trigger, effectively making it a single-stage trigger. That does work with some guns, but not with others. Those guns where the trigger moves the sear in both the first and second stages can become unsafe if you try to eliminate the first stage altogether. Because the sear is being moved in the first stage, the second stage has to be set on the sear so fine (with such a small contact surface) to eliminate the first stage, that it can slip off or be jarred off the sear without pulling the trigger. These triggers should never be adjusted like that.
Many triggers, even most of them, act directly on the sear. On guns with these triggers, there’s a benefit to smoothing the contact surface of both the sear and the corresponding surface of the trigger, as long as you do not cut through any case-hardening. Cheaper triggers often have their parts case-hardened, which is a way to use lower-grade steel and still have a sufficiently hard contact surface to resist wear. But this case-hardening is only a thin shell that can easily be cut away by a file. When that happens, the sear will never be able to hold a surface for long. The trigger-pull will change constantly and can become downright unsafe without any warning. The only safe method of smoothing these surfaces is with a hard stone, and with the part to be surfaced held in a jig, to keep the contact angle constant.
Some better triggers, like the Rekord, use levers instead of direct-contact sears. They do have contact points, but those act on levers that in turn act on the piston. These triggers can be adjusted very light and crisp and no stoning is ever required for their contact surfaces. Creep is usually not an issue with such triggers, as the levers rather than the contact surfaces are what bear the force of the cocked piston.
I say I like two-stage triggers, but two of my favorites are actually single-stage. The first and my most favorite trigger is on a Winchester High Wall rifle that’s chambered in .219 Zipper Improved. It’s a single-set trigger that is a single-stage by definition. Knowing that, I don’t approach the trigger blade until I’m ready to fire the shot. The crosshairs are perfectly centered on the target before I touch that blade with my finger, because it fires with only 6 oz. of pressure, though I could adjust it even lighter if I wanted.
That screw behind the trigger blade on this Winchester High Wall rifle is a dead giveaway of a single-set trigger. Push the blade forward to set it. The trigger can be operated either set or unset.
I could use this trigger unset just as easily. It would break around 3.5 lbs. and would be very crisp.
The other strange trigger I like is also a single-stage, though a zero-stage might be more like it. The trigger blade on my Remington model 37 Rangemaster target rifle does not move. It was called the Miracle trigger by Remington, and it’s fully adjustable. On my rifle, you simply press the blade until reaching 1 lb., 10 oz. when the sear lets go. As far as the shooter can tell, the trigger blade never moves, though in reality it does move about 1/16-inch upon firing.
Though it appears very plain, this Miracle trigger on the Remington model 37 Rangemaster target rifle is anything but. It releases without any perceptible movement.
Today, we looked at single-stage and two-stage triggers and learned how they operate. Do not confuse them with single-action and double-action triggers that are a different thing altogether — and the topic of our next installment.